Earlier this year, Warminster School featured in ITV's 'School Swap.' The programme followed the experience of some Warminster students who swapped places with their inner city comprehensive counterparts as both look at the reality of education behind the headlines.
Here, Schools Together meets Mark Mortimer, headmaster at Warminster School, to find out how School Swap came about and what was involved.
First, a little background about Warminster's involvement with partnerships.
In the past 12 months, established three separate partnerships with other schools:
1. Princecroft, a state primary in Warminster
2. The Royal Docks Community School, an 11-16 comprehensive in Newham, East London
3.The Bemrose School in Derby, an 11-18 comprehensive (the school that featured, along with Warminster, in ITV's recent programme 'School Swap - the Class Divide')
How did you decide on the partnerships and how did you first go about setting them up?
"We exhibited at the 2014 Independent Schools Show in London; the only pupils that I saw there were from the Royal Docks Community School in Newham. They were Year 11, enquiring about bursaries and scholarships and handing out their CVs. They were impressive young people and on the Monday I contacted their headteacher to commend her. She and I got talking, found common ground and so I went to visit her school. We talked some more, she came down to Warminster and we have now started working together. Two of her pupils have started at Warminster this term as full boarders. Hers is an 11-16 school.
Our relationship with The Bemrose School is entirely a result of our recent involvement in ITV’s ‘School Swap – the Class Divide’. I spent a week in Derby with three of my pupils, my counterpart did likewise at Warminster and we got on, again by focusing on common ground. I have been back up to the school this term, the new head and his family are coming to stay with my wife and me later this term and we are discussing how the schools will collaborate. One of their pupils – the now legendary Brett – started this term as a full boarder at Warminster.
Our partnership with a local primary started after I went to visit soon after I arrived at Warminster. The school had a new, ambitious headteacher and, again, he and I got on and agreed to start sharing ideas and resources.
Since the television programme, we have been approached by some other, more local schools and we are discussing with them how we might work together as well."
Which staff were involved at Warminster? Who was involved from the state school?
"I think the Heads are key, certainly in terms of getting things started. Our Head of Co-Curricular plays an important role in overseeing our link with the local primary school, as does the Head of Sport in the Prep School.
It is really important that the pupils are Warminster who come from our state partners have pastoral support when they go home and both schools have identified a member of staff to help with this. Boarding HMs and house matrons liaise with them (and parents) regularly. Tutors are also key.
Our senior school partnerships are both in the early stages and I am now keen to identify an enthusiastic member of staff to develop relationships at other levels across the schools."
What did you see as benefits which would result from the partnerships?
"For any teacher, visiting another school or department is great professional development. The teaching and learning in our partner schools is high quality and there’s a lot of good practice that we can all share."
What did you find difficult and what obstacles did you come up against?
"Nothing, really. Again, I think it comes down to an open-minded, determined approach and relationship-building.
During my time in our partner schools I have been struck by how similar my educational philosophy is to that of the staff I’ve met."
What have been the real successes of the partnerships?
"Three pupils coming to Warminster. They’re all very impressive and already contributing much to the school community.
Also, though these are early days, breaking down stereotypes, barriers and misconceptions has been very rewarding.
Reviewing Episode 1 of ‘School Swap’ in the Daily Mail, Christopher Stevens called it ‘the best bit of telly this year’ and wrote that ‘it’s a rare documentary that can leave viewers feeling better about the state of the country.’ I like to think he was referring to the fact that the six featured pupils (three from each school) got on so well, despite their vastly different backgrounds. When the four of us left Bemrose after a week at the school, the touching farewells and hugs between my three pupils and many of the Bemrose pupils made an enormous impression on me. Likewise, at the end of their visit to Warminster. It illustrated that, in essence, they are all just schoolchildren on the same small island. The day they drove to Wiltshire was the same day that some new photos of Prince George were released. Jo Ward told me that one of her three pupils had picked up a newspaper in the minibus en route and said ‘that’s what I’m expecting, Miss – they’ll all wear dungarees and have a side-parting.’ He was sadly disappointed!
I am also delighted as I think that ‘School Swap’ has made a significant contribution to this important debate and offered food for thought. It has, I hope, highlighted that many state and independent schools are already working together, that many teachers believe in it as the way forward and that there is much common ground."
Have there been any outcomes you would not have expected?
"Brett ending up as a pupil at Warminster! What a super outcome, however."
What advice could you offer to another independent school looking to set up a similar partnership with a state school?
"Just get on with it. Find a like-minded state school, contact the head and arrange a visit (to you and by you). Don’t be too ambitious, start small, avoid bureaucracy and paperwork, agree common ground and crack on. It doesn’t have to be expensive, time-consuming or forced but it does have to be meaningful and organic.
I always say to parents that schools are not about buildings but about people and relationships and school partnerships are the same. If the heads are open-minded, willing to focus on areas of agreement and treat one another as equals, then things are likely to go well.
It’s also important to remember that equality of partnership doesn’t mean there has to be equality of resources. Most independent schools have more facilities, but it’s about sharing best practices, ideas. Be clear on why you want to establish a partnership and what you want to get/give as part of it.
Establish with the other head a shared education philosophy (this is your common ground) and then think how you best achieve it for both schools’ pupils. With Bemrose and the RDCS, this has been about a focus on what happens beyond the classroom and the development of character."
What are the main points you would like readers to take away from your experience of the partnerships?
- The word ‘partnership’ has connotations of formality and legal agreements. ‘Relationships’ are what we really mean in most cases.
- They’re not difficult and they’re hugely rewarding. The common thread is mutually respectful relationships.
- Don’t be deterred by high-profile, well-documented and grand state-independent partnerships you may have seen in the press. Just go and have a chat with the head down the road.
- Remember that there are many outstanding state schools and that independent schools will benefit enormously from any such partnership. This isn’t ‘charity’. We are not ‘reaching down’. No-one likes to be patronised!
- The guiding principles thus far have been to establish meaningful, equal partnerships that benefit both schools and to avoid any paperwork whatsoever! This isn't meant to be flippant, but makes the point that it is not a bureaucratic, paper exercise.
- Letting local state schools use your swimming pool or astroturf once a week isn’t good enough.